Photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero Documents The Judgey Looks She Gets From Strangers For Being Fat

Fat folks can't always know why people are glaring at us, but it's tough not to assume the worst.

Feb 15, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

Photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero was working on a series of images of herself juxtaposed in spaces that reflect her sense of alienation due to her weight when she noticed a curious and unexpected trend in the background of some her photos. Specifically, in a photo taken of herself in Times Square, she saw a man standing behind her, looking at her with an obvious smirk.

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Photo by Haley Morris-Cafiero. Used with permission.

Morris-Cafiero then spotted similar stranger reactions in other photos she had taken, and thus a second project grew out of the first -- one she’s called Wait Watchers, in which she sets up her camera to photograph herself in busy places, and waits for someone to glare.

Morris-Cafiero says of the project:

I have always been aware of people making faces, commenting and laughing at me about my size. I now reverse the gaze and record their reactions to me while I perform mundane tasks in public spaces. I seek out spaces that are visually interesting and geographically diverse. I try to place myself in compositions that contain feminine icons or advertisements.

The comments on the post where I originally found this project are fairly damning of Morris-Cafiero. Commenters have taken her to task for assuming that the people she has caught looking at her disapprovingly were looking that way exclusively because of her weight, and not because of how she was dressed (one comment indicting her “abysmal attire” has over 200 upvotes as of this writing) or because she was blocking traffic on a busy street or because she was a weirdo taking self portraits with a camera and tripod in a public place.

As unpleasant (and often rude) as the dismissals are, it’s true that we have no way of knowing for certain whether many of the stares are a result of Morris-Cafiero’s weight, or for a zillion possible other reasons. We cannot see into the minds and motivations of these individuals, or even know if they are indeed looking at Morris-Cafiero in the first place, or if they are looking at something out of the frame. (We also can’t ignore the fact that IF her attire is indeed “abysmal” -- which I would debate -- that itself is likely related to the relative lack of clothing options available to plus-sized women.)

The motivations of the people staring are less interesting to me than one possible subtext of the whole project -- one that Morris-Cafiero does not articulate in her own description but which is difficult to ignore as a component of living in a fat body in public space. The subtext that fascinates me is the particular flavor of social paranoia likely familiar (even to a small degree) to anyone who looks markedly different from what is considered normal and socially acceptable.

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Oh hey, nobody's looking I guess.

Truthfully, it is a paranoia with which I am personally very well acquainted. Over my many years of fatting around in life, I’ve experienced my fair share of vocal public recrimination for not appearing to be sorry enough about my body. I’ve written about these experiences as well, from the vague to the very, very specific

But the more general feeling of a disapproving stare is harder to pinpoint; sometimes the person may be staring and thinking, “Ugh, how gross is she?” while other times they may be wondering where I got my shoes, or they may not really be looking at me at all but are rather lost in their own thoughts. I can’t really know.

That doesn’t stop me from sometimes assuming it’s all about me being fat, though. 

Example: I’m sitting alone in a cafe, eating a salad and reading a book. I notice a table occupied by two young women and a young man directly across from me. They are quietly laughing together in a confidential way. They take turns stealing glances in my direction, in what I perceive to be a surreptitious manner. Then they whisper something and laugh some more.

Are they laughing at me? Are they laughing at something behind me? Are they simply laughing about their shared conversation and haven’t even noticed I’m there? I can’t know. But I wonder, and I feel like a target.

Another example: I’m browsing in Sephora whilst wearing a really loud outfit, including a poofy dress made all the poofier by the utterly gratuitous addition of a crinoline. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot three tweener girls a few feet away pointing in my direction and snickering. Are they actually pointing and laughing at me? Are they laughing at something else? 

Worse: if they are laughing at me, did I ask for it? Because I am not only fat but dressed in a manner that explicitly demands people look? And if they are laughing at me, do I have any right to be upset? Isn’t that why I go out like this in the first place, to challenge people? To make them see me?

My whole body stiffens with preemptive rage, rage that I can’t channel anywhere in the absence of an obvious confrontation, rage that I have to simply carry and sit with. I can’t know what they're thinking. But I feel attacked nevertheless.

I try to maintain perspective. The world does not revolve around me. Not everyone gives a shit what I look like; indeed, it’s likely very few people do. And sometimes people who stare will then approach me and enthusiastically tell me how much they like my dress or my hair or some other thing. Most of the time I don’t even think about how people may or may not be looking at me; most of the time I just go about my business and live my life.

And seriously, what good does it do me to let the purely hypothetical reactions of strangers affect how I perceive myself? No good at all.

But I sometimes still feel that paranoia, that kneejerk defensiveness, that urge to storm up and bellow, “WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE YOUR LITTLE JOKE WITH THE REST OF THE CLASS?” to demonstrate that I am not oblivious or dull-witted, that I can defend myself, that I deserve respect. To show that their laughter cannot make me feel badly about myself, or make me shrink from view.

Which is kind of ironic, because it often does make me feel bad, and defensive, although in a more angry-at-the-world than an angry-at-myself sort of way.

This is why I don’t think the primary value in Morris-Cafiero’s project is that it documents a certainty that she is constantly subject to judgmental stares because of her size, and why the commenters’ heavy-handed analysis (complete with brilliant sweeping solutions to the "obesity epidemic") is sort of missing the point. 

What this project documents, for me, is that paranoid feeling of constantly being assessed -- the pressure of critical eyes on a body that stands out whether I want it to or not. Because sometimes, I AM being stared at, or laughed at, or pointed at or scowled at, because I am fat. Sometimes I am not. And I can’t always tell the difference. 

My ability to simply accept that without feeling boiling fury over it -- not just on my own behalf, but on the behalf of anyone who has to suffer the same attempts at public humiliation for looking different -- is still a work in progress. And although it might be better for my stress levels if I did, I really don’t think I should have to accept that I’m going to get harassed if I insist upon existing as I do.

I think I should be allowed to be angry, and to demand that people learn some fucking manners, no matter how badly they want to elbow their friend and gawp at the crazy fatty going out in public like she has a right to be where people can see her.

I am unwilling to read into Morris-Cafiero’s relationship with her size, or even her own feelings about the people who look, based on this project alone, because her motivation could be powerful self-loathing as easily as it could be righteous indignation, or it could be any combination of the two, or it could be something else entirely, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. (I emailed her to ask how she feels about the way this project has been portrayed so far, but had not heard back in time for this piece to be published.)

If nothing else, what she and I have in common is a sense of frequently being judged for falling so far outside the feminine beauty standards we’re expected to adhere to, coupled with an urge to draw a line connecting the image we project, the cultural lens through which our viewers see us, and the complicated realities of the people we are inside our own heads -- and also to make people see how their glares and snickers and glances look from the receiving end.

Honestly, it’s not a pretty view.